Yarl's Wood: An object lesson in how evil happens

Bad people, bad management and institutional failure all contributed to what happened at the Yarl's Wood detention centre.

You hear a lot of things when you’re a journalist. And ninety-five per cent of the time, you know they’re not true, or wildly exaggerated. And every so often you think they might be true, but you don’t know how on earth you’re going to stand them up, and you also know that unless you’ve got a watertight case, you’re going to get your publication’s arse sued off.

That smoking gun: who knows when it’ll turn up? All you can do is keep making inquiries, bide your time, report on other things - and maybe your biggest fear is ending up like one of those old Fleet Street soaks on the documentaries about Jimmy Savile: “Sure, we all knew, but what could we do? We were just journalists.”

The public doesn’t have a lot of time for this sentiment. Maybe the public’s right. Dunno. Most hacks I know try their best. But then they’re also idiots, myself included. Dogs chasing cars, to quote a famous film villain. Or these days more likely to be sniffing each other’s arseholes on social media.

So: Yarl’s Wood. I’d heard plenty of murmurs from solicitors and campaigners before this weekend. But I hadn’t heard explicit details such as those laid out in the Observer’s front page story. To quote Nick Cohen’s accompanying comment piece:

According to Tanja's account, a male guard locks the door. He pulls out his earpiece, perhaps to make sure he is not disturbed, and after some initial touching, he pushes his penis in her face. He laughs when he ejaculates in her mouth – so confident is he that he can escape punishment.

I’d written about Yarl’s Wood many times before, but found it frustrating because I couldn’t really write about what I suspected to be a regular occurrence. I remember one former inmate talking to me on the phone from there last year: these words in her thick African accent - “They are BAD people. They are BAD people,” again and again. She’d come here from a war zone. What was going on? “I don’t like to say. They are BAD.”

Let’s quote Cohen again:

The corporate guards confine her and can punish her. One starts thrusting himself on her. What does she do? She could think that she has to go along with him or he'll put her on the next plane out. Or she could believe that if she does what she is told she will be in a relationship with an Englishman and that somehow this "affair" (if that is not too romantic a word) will allow her to stay in the country.

Bad people. But I couldn’t prove it, and there was plenty else to cover. I could have written a piece a week about the sort of people we send there. Only a couple of days ago I received an email about Evenia Mawongera, who has just been sent there pending deportation to Zimbabwe. She’s an outspoken critic of the Mugabe regime, and has been living in Leicester with her children and grandchildren for the past 10 years. 

On 22 August, she received a special commendation in the Good Neighbour Awards in recognition of her contribution to the community. She’s a member of the Zimbabwe Association Choir and is one of the people who performed for the Queen when she came to Leicester in June 2012 to mark the start of her Diamond Jubilee tour. She has no family in Zimbabwe. Her children and grandchildren, with whom she has been living for the past 10 years, are British citizens.

That’s the kind of person we keep sending to Yarl’s Wood.

And I know what Evenia faces. I’ve written about the history of the place. About a woman who was dragged out of her room naked in order to force her removal, and a resulting hunger strike among the detainees. About the woman suffering from kidney failure who was left sitting in her own piss in the van on the way to the centre. About the treatment of pregnant women in there. And so on.

So I’m glad the smoking gun eventually appeared - from a source, as Cohen points out, that very soon will cease to exist:

We would not have published a word about Yarl's Wood were it not for the heroic efforts of Harriet Wistrich, the best feminist lawyer I know. But she will not be able to carry on bringing cases like these to the public's attention for much longer.

The legal aid cuts are not directed against fat cat lawyers, who continue to make their fortunes in the City, but against solicitors such as her, who do well if they make £40,000 a year. More seriously, they are directed against their clients.

***

Some commenters on my previous pieces about Yarl’s Wood have complained about my apparent left wing bias. If only I took politics that seriously. I just tend to write about things that aren’t working. Like most writers who’ve spent enough time following our political elite, I believe that when you vote, you’re choosing between slightly different styles of management. And the most important distinction in the management isn’t between left or right - it’s between good and bad. And on many issues - perhaps most - you’ll get much the same kind of good and bad from all the parties.

Bad management doesn’t sound all that serious. But once the system malfunctions, the results can be despicable. Hillsborough, Mid Staffs, a vulnerable young woman in a detention centre giving blowjobs she doesn’t want to give. For evil to thrive, all that has to happen etc.

And we’ve dealt with immigration badly whoever’s in power. In part - and it’s the same story with crime - that’s because our lawmakers know that managing the public perception is far more important than whatever’s going on in reality.

We’re a funny lot when it comes to this issue. I guess as a nation we’re summed up by one encounter the TV chef Lorraine Pascale described on Twitter: “Landlord said to me all 'n words' should go home & were not welcome. He said I could stay though as his wife liked my cakes.”

As I once wrote here, in recent years the rate of immigration to Britain has increased – as has the rate of migration around the world. It’s hardly surprising this should spark concerns on a small island with a grandiose history, an uncertainty about its future standing in the world, and an obscenely subtle set of cultural nuances.

But then T S Eliot was right about humankind not being able to stand too much reality. Send those scrounging foreign bastards/job thieves (delete as applicable; or maybe keep both) home, except for that nice old Indian couple who live up the road and that Spanish bloke in our local footy team. Damn the EU opening the floodgates, right up until we retire to the Algarve.

We’re a nation of tedious hypocrites. And that means our politicians have felt they have to be seen to be doing the right thing, even if they’re not. That’s how you end up with the crass hilariousness of the “racist van” patrolling the streets while the Border Agency staggers from one crisis to another, ruining lives in the process, until the coalition finally put it out of its misery.

At the time Theresa May said it was “secretive and defensive”. It was, but it was also unsure of itself, and like many government entities, it felt the safest option was to give contracts to the giant corporations, put the dirty jobs at arm’s length - how bad could it be? They know what they’re doing, right? Institutional failure. It’s an object lesson in how evil happens.

Sorry for the indulgent trip down commentary lane: back to chasing cars now. If the weekend’s taught me anything, it’s that it’s the right thing to do.

Police outside Yarl's Wood after a fire there in 2003. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Don’t blame young people for not voting – blame the system that fails them

The majority of young people voted to Remain in the EU, but turn out was low. But this is a symptom of an unfair system, not a recent to punish them.

“A Britain divided” – that has been the dominant narrative to emerge in the aftermath of the Brexit vote a week ago. There has been talk of the divisions between rich and poor, the metropolitan and the regional, the Scottish and the English/Welsh, but perhaps the most vehement discussion has centred around the gulf between generations. Polling indicates that 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Remain, while Electoral Commission data showed that, in urban areas where the average age was 35 and under, there was overwhelming support for remaining in the EU.

Older people, meanwhile, voted to leave, which is why the morning after the result, social media erupted in fury at the baby boomers and their parents accused of cocking up our futures (for it is we who will live longest with the fallout, after all). Rarely have I seen such vehemence directed at the old by the young.

There was, of course, the inevitable backlash. Generation Y, boomers argued, just couldn’t be arsed to wrench themselves away from their screens to go and vote. We don’t know the turnout figures for certain, but Sky data indicates it may have been shockingly low – 36 per cent for 18-24 year olds, and 58 per cent for those between 25-34. There was more than a whiff of disdainful superiority in the air from some of the older generation – many of their criticisms amounted to “shut up and stop whining”, or, “you’ll come crawling back when you need cash from the bank of mum and dad”. Worst of all was being told to bow down and respect our elders in their infinite superior knowledge.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that young turnout was as low as estimates suggest. Can this really be said to be an indictment of young people, or is it really an indictment of a system that alienates them utterly? There is a whiff of blaming the victims to all this. As Ben Bowman, a researcher on young people’s politics from the University of Bath tells me, “turnout and ‘low engagement’ are symptoms of an illness, not the illness itself. The illness is politics done at a distance from young people.”

Something else Bowman says resonates particularly with me, as someone who took part in the 2010 student protests against tuition fee rises and cuts to EMA, and then sunk into political disillusionment and disgust that our voices had meant nothing to the politicians implementing policy. “I can’t overstate the extent to which young people feel politics is about people needing things and being told ‘well, we haven’t got the money.’ The Iraq war, tuition fees and austerity have really shrunk the horizons of what young people consider possible. They are just trying to get by, to play by the rules and navigate increased risk in transition to adulthood.”

For this reason, as well as many others, it is unfair to heap derision on the young who didn’t vote (and for what it’s worth, some experts have said they actually think turnout may have been up). Dr James Sloam from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway university points out that public policy decisions have generally been against our interests. While rich pensioners keep their winter fuel allowance, their free TV licences and travel passes, we face the highest tuition fees in the western world, the closure of youth centres, a living wage that only starts at 25, and cuts to housing benefit. Why participate in a system that hates you?

Of course, the easy rebuttal to this is the fact that, unless you participate, the politicians (and the policies they create) will continue to ignore you. There’s an element of truth to this, but it fails to take into account several things. Firstly, thanks to our first past the post electoral system, there is a perception that, even if you do vote, that it doesn’t really count, and certainly doesn’t change anything. Secondly, there is the mantra, one you’ll hear again and again, that all politicians are the same. As Kelly McBride from The Democratic Society says:

“To large numbers of people the political system, party politics, the institutions of statehood seem like immutable objects. You cannot change the way that politics is done, or upheave centuries of tradition, or fight against what you consider the overwhelming social power of Oxbridge politicians and their friends running international business ventures.

“Why bother to swap one boring suit for another when nothing has got better for you or your family? As the old adage goes, “no matter who you vote for, a politician always gets in.”

These are words worth bearing in mind to those in the establishment still baffled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, who at the time of writing is refusing to budge as Labour leader, amongst younger people. McBride tells me that my generation’s disenfranchisement is not just from the political apparatus of state, but from ideology, too. While older people can remember what it was like to have a political party formed on the basis of ideology, “young people today can probably count the number of politicians who seem to act out of principle or ideology on one hand, and such figures are roundly ridiculed in the press for being high-minded or weak leaders”. Sound like anyone we know?

If we are to get young people voting, it’s clear we need a wider range of politicians. A Demos/Vinspired report found that 56 per cent of young people would be more likely to vote if there were more local working class MPs. We also need more women, more candidates from diverse backgrounds, and younger representatives (just look at the 21-year-old SNP MP Mhairi Black, whose maiden speech went viral). The EU referendum campaign on both sides reflected this paucity perhaps more than any campaign that I can remember. Where were the women, the young people? It was basically just grey-haired men in suits arguing. When there was a debate for young people, it portrayed the sides as evenly split between leave and remain, thus giving a distorted view of how younger people felt about the issues involved.

I’m also not convinced that – despite the valiant efforts of campaign groups such as Bite the Ballot – was entirely made clear how important it was that young people registered to vote in this election. Many seemed unaware that their vote could have been a game-changer until afterwards. Plus, young people are notoriously peripatetic, and many will not have been at their term-time addresses. The registration system saw 1m people fall off the register. It fell by 40 per cent.

Before the referendum, an article for UKandEU argued that young voters are rarely anti-EU; they just don’t understand it. To my mind, the campaign did not help to clarify the already-murky waters. The impression I get from friends and acquaintances is that the EU debate led to a lack of confidence in terms of knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand that was not helped by politicians' statements or media coverage of them. “I don’t feel I know enough” was a phrase I heard again and again. It’s not something you hear so much from the older generation.

And if this referendum made anything clear, it was that not understanding the issues at hand didn’t put older people off voting. Perhaps it is the young who are truly wise. As Richard Bronk, a Visiting Fellow at the European Institute at LSE wrote in a recent blog post:

“The world has changed so fast that the Platonic idea of respecting the greater wisdom of the elderly is out of date . . . it is most of us over fifty who have no idea how social and economic life really operates in the interdependent, fluid and digital age in which our children live.” 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.